gritstone climbing - Jules McKim - a climber, traveler and writer exploring connections, cultures, and the mysteries of life.
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Without geography, you’re nowhere. 

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My study of geography was pulled from the classroom into the mountains and cliffs of the UK through my pursuit of climbing. By following rock, I’ve seen the world. Both the spectacular locations – Yosemite, Wadi Rum – and the downbeat ones, the dirty holes in the ground. But there is beauty in all these places. The geography chapter of Schooled By Rock is a love letter to gritstone, that most wonderful rock, which I was lucky enough to have as my local, geographically convenient playground for three years while I studied geology at Sheffield University. 

Geography, and its elderly cousin geology, is everywhere, a sort of wordless Esperanto. A volcano doesn’t know if it’s a cinder cone or a shield volcano or if it’s from Fiji or Turkey, it doesn’t need to, it’s just a volcano. The earth shows its teeth in these mountains and rock outcroppings. If lava is the blood of our world, then rock must be that blood made flesh and as we hold it, we connect at an elemental level, beyond words and labels, touching an inexplicable power.

Here, in the industrial north, the grit, due to its integrity and texture was carved into millstones to grind grain in mills. Uncollected and broken millstones litter the moorland below the edges. The gritstone was used too for general construction, and you’ll see it across nearby towns and cities in the houses and factories, viaducts and bridges. The outcrops are both natural and quarried, sometimes at the same cliff. There are a few gritstone crags in dingy urban environments on the edges of the towns, but many more are up on the high moorland with open aspects and commanding views.

We flung ourselves into it, Guy, Paul and me. We three met at the first gathering of the Sheffield University Mountaineering Club (with its twisted acronym SCUM) and ended up sharing houses together in our second and third years. We opted for a diet of pure grit, the limestone cliffs largely ignored, mainly because we liked to be up on the moors, on the higher ground, with views and clouds and sunsets, where the winds blew and the grouse grumbled, but also due to the inexplicable attraction of gritstone as a medium to climb on.

Days on Stanage: no ropes, just endless soloing, eating through the classics as they ate into us, nibbling at our fists and palms. Leaving nothing but skin, taking nothing but lessons learned and warm memories of movement. But what we actually took was so much. These were peak experiences every time we went out. This was our play. And below are some of the games played, and what they taught me.

I love how the routes, these games, their structure, are the same for all climbers who choose to play them. This leads to wonderful connective conversations: It’s such a good climb, isn’t it? How did you do the crux? Did you get the pocket with your left or right hand? Although each ascent is individual, there’s a shared experience too and with the truly special routes you join a select club where the entry requirements are simply scars in the right places, and a knowing wink.

The guidebook entries give the name, length, grade and a brief description for each climb:

Silent Spring. 24m. E4 5c, 5c. Start in the dirty gully on the left and cross a thin green slab to a stance on the front (belay on a pre-placed rope). Continue right and then down before traversing out to the arete and a fine finish. Some of the many ancient bolts can be clipped or threaded although none should be trusted.

The snow lay all around, deep and crisp and even. Burbage valley in winter is magical, the snow adding to the already otherworldly silence and aural qualities. This huge chunk of stone, The Cioch Block, hangs out into the quarry, like the wide forehead of a sleeping giant; we tiptoed quietly across beneath its eyebrows, hoping it didn’t wake. Two pitches, one each for Paul and me. Guy was on the tape deck playing dub reggae classics at high volume, the heavy bass lines echoing around the quarry. Paul opted for the first pitch which pleased me immensely until I saw it was likely worse to go second. A fall at the tricky start would pendulum me across into the void, the rope sawing along the top of the block. But it was all good, though care and precision was required: the short first pitch was soon despatched, and we were both on the belay, half-way along the face.

I had been here before, had failed to commit to the first moves rightwards on pitch 2. Over the following months, I had examined the remembered holds in my mind, their sizes and their positions, and had developed a sequence. Amazingly, it worked first go. Low hold for the right hand down at waist level, right foot strides across, cartwheel roll the left hand across for a finger edge and the next holds all come running. The rest of the pitch was an easy romp in a fabulous position, snow below, Paul to the left holding my ropes, Guy level with me and behind, UB40 all around. The traverse goes all the way to the right edge of the block before moving up lovely rough rock, natural here in contrast to the quarried face below. Great handfuls of rock, just made to be held.

We stopped for a few pints at the Fox House, a delightful end to the day. The beer was terrible, but the mood ebullient. Our hands were so tired they struggled to hold full pint glasses – we needed to drink them quickly. Lessons learned: the mind can find solutions to problems beneath our conscious awareness; and I love a winter pub with mates at day’s end. Over our pints we picked over the day’s moves and shapes, miming cruxes and discussing visualisation. The routes I’d done, the routes I wanted to do filled my mind, with endless repetition and circular thinking. If you can imagine doing a route, does it make it more likely that you’ll succeed on it? It certainly seemed so. But there were some that I didn’t want to imagine…

 

 

The wind buffets over the turrets of Burbage North behind us, the heather shuggles, the rocks hum at us breathlessly. Sheep call in the distance, the occasional grouse chuckles and we remark again at how the acoustics of Burbage Valley are otherworldly, how sounds are somehow magnified. It is one of those places that, when alone, you become more and more aware through the day of your own sounds: your breathing, your heartbeat, the squeak of your rock boots, your internal monologue, your muttered self-conscious “Yes!” as you pull over the top on the finishing holds, not wanting to shout out of respect for the surroundings, much like the reverence one shows in a church.

I have to confess I have a deep love for this stone that verges on the carnal; I will find myself rubbing my hands across its surfaces when walking past boulders, fingers dipping into pockets and cracks, tweaking its pebbles, imagining the moves it suggests with its dark eyes and sparkling crystals. Revisiting again after time away, I pass a swell of gritstone through a gap between two boulders, my left hand sliding along and around as if across the hip of a lover; I’m steadied, grounded, home.